Stuart Lancaster warns Chris Ashton he could be dropped for England v Italy

All problems are relative when you sit unbeaten on top of the Six Nations championship table with an opportunity to win a first grand slam since 2003.

England have duly confirmed a settled 31-man training squad for next week's Italy fixture, but there is still room for improvement in certain areas. Chris Ashton's modest form, for example, has yet to cost his country dear but is an increasing issue for his coaches.

All players at all levels have the occasional off-day but Wesley Fofana's try for France on Saturday concentrated attention on Ashton's less-than-watertight defence. The Saracens wing was not the sole culprit but opposing teams are starting to sniff a technical weakness. Against Wales' big wings, George North and Alex Cuthbert, it could prove a serious headache.

Ashton is as frustrated as anybody judging by the petulant way in which he threw the ball at Benjamin Fall in the closing moments of England's 23-13 victory. He has had some wonderful days in a white jersey, with 17 tries in 32 Tests to prove it, but that old swagger is only fleetingly apparent. He ran with the ball on nine occasions against the French and made a grand total of 30 metres; against Scotland he carried it 12 times and made 19 metres.

His first-half try against the Scots remains his solitary five-pointer in the past two Six Nations seasons. Given seven of those eight games were England wins, it adds up to pretty thin gruel. He last scored a Premiership try in early September.

Luck always plays some part; a personal view is that Ashton is more comfortable for England when he can feed off his old Northampton mate Ben Foden alongside him. But Foden has been injured and out of the side of late and sharp-eyed opposition analysts have clearly been on the case. The late instinctive darts into midfield which used to cause so much trouble have been duly replaced by blind-alley forays and growing defensive uncertainty.

North, Cuthbert, Tommy Bowe, Craig Gilroy, Sean Maitland, Tim Visser and Keith Earls all have arguably stronger Lions claims at this moment.

None of this is news to Stuart Lancaster and here are hints England's patience is starting to wear thin. The 25-year-old Ashton has already been sent away for one defensive tutorial this season, having been ruled out of the Fiji game in November because of repeated yellow cards picked up in domestic games, and another spell in reform school may be looming.

"I think he's trying hard and working hard but equally he knows there are areas of his game he's got to work on," said Lancaster. "We've been talking to him about that. Like everyone else he'll be disappointed by the try Fofana scored."

The head coach has an increasing range of alternatives. As well as Foden and David Strettle, the likes of Jonny May, Christian Wade, Tom Biggs and Marland Yarde have their admirers and could be blooded on England's summer tour to Argentina. Then there is Manu Tuilagi, who played much of his schoolboy rugby on the left wing. "One of the options is that Manu could play there with Billy Twelvetrees at No12," said Lancaster. "That would put some pressure on him, wouldn't it?" There are many who believe a change would help all parties.

Over at London Irish, following a weekend game against Wasps in which Wade and Yarde scored eye-catching tries, the former England coach Brian Smith is among those backing a switch. "Chris Ashton two years ago probably redefined the way wingers played in terms of coming off his wing and support play," said Smith. "But Chris does not want to get his hands dirty, put his head over the ball, clean out, jump for the ball and work defensively. I think Marland is a better player … he's the complete package."

For now, though, Ashton remains the man in possession. He will be training alongside, among others, his uncapped fellow Saracen Joel Tomkins but Gloucester's Freddie Burns will attempt to prove his match fitness against Bath this Friday instead. Ben Morgan and Owen Farrell will also be assessed by medical staff, with both hopeful of featuring against Italy on Sunday week.

Powered by article was written by Robert Kitson, for The Guardian on Monday 25th February 2013 20.42 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


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